As House passes bill to close ‘Charleston loophole,’ disagreement over what that means

There is widespread agreement that avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof should not have been allowed to buy the gun he used to kill nine black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

There are profound disagreements, however, about what would have stopped Roof, who was facing drug charges, from walking away with the firearm.

These disagreements, which threaten the chance of enacting a law intended to prevent similar slayings, were on display Thursday as the Democrat-controlled U.S. House advanced legislation to close the so-called “Charleston loophole.”

By a 228-198 vote — with just three Republicans siding with all but seven Democrats — lawmakers passed a bill to extend the waiting period to 10 days, from three, for would-be gun owners who don’t quickly pass a federal background check.

When Roof bought his gun in early 2015, he was able to take it home after three days when federal examiners could not find evidence to disqualify him from gun ownership. Had federal examiners had more time to complete their background check, critics of the current system argue, they might have found that Roof faced dug charges, making him ineligible to buy a gun.

On June 17, 2015, Roof entered Mother Emanuel and murdered nine black parishioners of the landmark Charleston church.

During debate on the House floor Thursday, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., took issue with Republicans who complained about the burden of having to wait longer to buy a firearm “without mentioning those poor souls of Mother Emanuel AME Church.

“Are they more valuable than the inconvenience a gun purchaser may have by having to wait 10 rather than three days to make a purchase?” asked Clyburn, the bill’s champion. “If you’ve gotta have a gun right now, chances are you have no useful purpose, no redeeming value, in the purchase of that gun.”

Clyburn and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston — the S.C. congressional delegation’s only other Democrat — sought to highlight the significance of Thursday’s vote, the first official act that Congress has taken in response to the Charleston massacre, which spurred the removal of the Confederate flag from the S.C. State House grounds.

The two lawmakers hosted a press conference Thursday morning where their special guest was Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME, who was killed during Roof’s shooting spree.

“We’re not asking for anything major,” Jennifer Pinckney said, flanked by her two young daughters. “Please, we’ve got to close the Charleston loophole.”

The Pinckneys also had seats overlooking the House floor as lawmakers debated the legislation.

Most Republicans were not swayed, falling in line with GOP’s traditional opposition to legislation that restricts gun ownership.

The White House also issued a veto threat, saying the bill would result in “bureaucratic delay(s) that would undermine the Second Amendment’s guarantee that law-abiding citizens have an individual right to keep and bear arms.” This all but dooms the bill’s chances of passage now in the GOP-controlled Senate.

But S.C. Republicans took a different posture. While all five of the Republican U.S. House members in the S.C. congressional delegation voted against the Enhanced Background Checks Act on Thursday, they said it was because it would not have averted the tragedy in their home state.

“Too often, we take up noble causes and create legislation with noble names and we pass this legislation to feel better, but the legislation fails to solve the problem,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C.

The Enhanced Background Checks Act, Rice said, was one example of that.

Rice presented his own proposed solution Thursday to close the Charleston loophole: An amendment to Clyburn’s bill that would have allowed examiners with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to view records in a specific federal database called the National Data Exchange.

NICS examiners working on Roof’s background check were not permitted to view files in this database. If they had access, they would have more easily found a report detailing Roof’s arrest for unlawful drug possession. That arrest would have disqualified him from walking away with his firearm.

Rice’s amendment likely would have been adopted, but he withdrew it before members had a chance to vote. He said he would introduce it later as a standalone bill and, in the meantime, oppose Clyburn’s bill, which he said only would create an undue burden on gun purchasers and not solve the problem it purported to fix.

The complexity of the circumstances surrounding the Roof case might have contributed to the bill’s unpopularity among Republicans. Fewer GOP lawmakers voted for Clyburn’s bill than supported a bill a day earlier that would extend background checks on nearly all types of gun purchases. Twelve Republicans supported that measure.

Across the Capitol, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told McClatchy the “Charleston loophole” doesn’t even exist.

“I don’t think there was a loophole to begin with,” Graham said. “They (examiners) went to the wrong county (when they checked Roof’s records). It wasn’t a time problem, they just looked in the wrong place. They could have two weeks. His criminal involvement was in a county they didn’t check.”

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which overseas gun policy, Graham was referring to arrest records relating to the drug possession charges against Roof. Those records were filled out incorrectly, causing a FBI examiner to look for the records in the wrong jurisdictions.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., agreed something had to do be done to respond to the Emanuel shooting but was noncommittal on supporting Clyburn’s bill.

“Fixing the system to make sure it always works is key,” Scott said. “What the legislation does to make sure we fix that, I don’t know.”

Scott also said he had not “given enough thought” to the question of whether extending the waiting time for background checks is the way to address the problem.

At his Thursday press conference, Clyburn conceded “we have no idea what perpetrated the glitch” that resulted in Roof walking away with his gun.

But, he added, “the loophole is there. You can call it whatever you want.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.